I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Home and Displacement Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
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Home and Displacement Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Home and Displacement Theme Icon

The memoir also explores the idea of home and the pain and confusion of displacement, and in doing so for the particular experience of Maya Angelou also more broadly portrays these issues with respect to the history and experience of black Americans.

Marguerite is sent away from her mother and father to live with her grandmother at a young age; one of her earliest memories is of displacement, of being sent away from her home. She and Bailey often wonder why they were sent away—they feel rejected. At the same time, Marguerite associates Momma with home, and is sad to leave Arkansas when she and her brother go to St. Louis. In many ways, Marguerite’s childhood is characterized by an enduring struggle to identify “home.”

When Marguerite and Bailey are moved from Arkansas to California, Marguerite finds the transition painful, but understands it. Bailey is threatened by a white man who forces Bailey to help carry the carcass of a drowned black man found in the lake. After this incident occurs, Momma makes it clear that the children will have to move. In this way, displacement is shown to be a fundamental part of growing up black in America. Though Arkansas is Bailey’s home, he is forced to leave because violent racism drives him away.

In a book so deeply concerned with history, and with the history of black oppression, it is appropriate that displacement and the difficulty of finding “home” play a huge role in the lives of the book’s characters. The legacy of slavery is still having a palpable effect on the lives of Maya and her family—finding “home” in America proves to be especially difficult.

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Home and Displacement Quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Below you will find the important quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings related to the theme of Home and Displacement.
Prologue Quotes

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In the conclusion to her vividly imagined prologue, Angelou highllights the pain and displacement that shape much of the book. She takes as her premise the pain of growing up as a “Southern Black girl,” making it clear that she’ll be focusing on three core parts of her identity as a writer and as a character within her own autobiographical fiction: her Southernness, her Blackness, and her gender.

Further, Angelou concludes, it is the Southern Black girl’s awareness of her displacement that makes this pain not only sharp but maybe even dangerous. Angelou’s book looks closely at all sorts of regional, racialized, and gendered traumas; with this in mind, we might see this quotation as a statement of purpose for her book. But the rusted knife of pain and displacement is only the starting point for Angelou, and the book proceeds in a life-giving direction too.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

It seemed that the peace of day’s ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes, and the crippled was still in effect.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Uncle Willie
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Angelou’s exploration of the Black community’s rhythms of daily life in Stamps, shaped by their visits to her grandmother’s store and their difficult days of manual labor, describes early morning and nighttime as periods of rest so deeply needed that they might be sacred. At the same time, though, Angelou writes with definite sarcasm; the grouping of “children, Negroes, and the crippled” highlights the ridiculousness of the pairing in the first place – the equating of black people with children and cripples – and in so doing shows how such a grouping emerges from white paternalism (and not from Angelou’s God himself).

Throughout the book, Angelou suggests that the white community’s stereotypes of black people (often referred to as Negroes here) are both true and not. When they are true, they’re usually true for the wrong reasons. The Black community in Stamps holds sacred these periods of evening rest, but not because of any connection between black people and children or cripples.

Chapter 4 Quotes

When I was described by our playmates as being shit color, he was lauded for his velvet-black skin…And yet he loved me.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Bailey Johnson
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

The brother-sister relationship between Maya and Bailey is central to this book. In other contexts a passage like this might signal jealousy on Maya’s part; she is treated poorly for her tone of black skin, and Bailey is “lauded” for it. But here, amidst all of Maya’s admiration for and amazement at her brother Bailey, there is little room for jealousy. Angelou uses two very different but equally powerful descriptors for their blackness: “shit color” for her, and “velvet-black” for Bailey.

In these descriptions Angelou unflinchingly takes on the language of her detractors, forcing the reader to feel some of the pain Maya might be feeling. Interestingly, at the end of this passage, Angelou writes: “And yet he loved me.” We might expect it to be the other way around: even though Maya is made fun of for her skin color and Bailey admired or his, she is able to forgive him and love him, and so on. But the fact that Maya feels the need to earn Bailey’s love despite her supposedly “shit color” skin shows us how deep the child Maya’s shame runs.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Bailey Johnson, Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

In reading this passage, it helps to have a sense of how ardently Maya Angelou worked, throughout her career, to tell new types of stories about blackness and being black in the United States. This quotation clearly emerges in retrospect, as Angelou reflects on the ways Momma held her and Bailey within the safe confines of relative black success as sanctioned by white society. In this passage we find both sympathy for Momma’s beliefs and a real desire to surpass them, to live radically outside of what could be considered “safe” because it wouldn’t offend any of the power-holding white people on the other side of Stamps and the other side of the country.

Momma wants Maya and Bailey to pray diligently, work hard, respect authority; mostly she wants them to keep their heads down. Angelou ends up doing the opposite, of course, writing and publishing a book about her life in Stamps and beyond. So, in many ways, this book is both an affirmation of Momma’s ways (which are described in detail, with respect for the necessity of survival in a world very dangerous to black women) and a piece of tangible evidence that Angelou has exceeded the bounds placed around her.

Chapter 11 Quotes

He held me so softly I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go. I felt at home.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mr. Freeman
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of being sexually assaulted by Mr. Freeman, Maya finds peace in the sensation of being held by him. This is one of the most vivid and disturbing sequences in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Maya’s utter confusion about what is happening to Mr. Freeman’s body and what he might be doing to her is captured most effectively in this moment. Mr. Freeman has just finished masturbating against Maya’s body, and knowing this the reader cannot help but wince at the intimacy of their embrace. But Maya, who has not yet connected the wetness in the bed to Mr. Freeman’s anatomy, is comforted simply by his close physical presence.

Throughout the early chapters of this book, we can feel Maya searching for intimacy from adults— this makes sense given that her story begins with her and Bailey’s abandonment by their parents. Maya feels “at home” when Mr. Freeman holds her. And so with characters like Mr. Freeman and Mrs. Flowers Maya seems to be searching deeply for someone to hold her, emotionally or physically. The trouble comes when an adult— in this case Mr. Freeman— capitalizes on Maya’s earnest wish for closeness by causing her harm.

Chapter 15 Quotes

It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be a Negro, just by being herself.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mrs. Bertha Flowers
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

As she did with Mr. Freeman (to disastrous effect), Maya looks to Mrs. Flowers for an adult ally. However, the relationship she develops with Mrs. Flowers is positive, and formative in spurring Maya’s fascination with reading and writing. Mrs. Flowers also, as Angelou suggests here, is a living denial of the stereotypes Maya struggles against as a black girl. Educated, dignified, elegant: Mrs. Flowers is everything the white people say black women cannot be. Thus she makes Maya “proud” simply by existing, by providing a vital counterexample in Maya’s youth to the stereotyped image of blackness and femininity promoted in Stamps and the rest of the segregated South.

Chapter 17 Quotes

The Black woman in the south who raises sons, grandsons, and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Bailey Johnson, Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this startling passage, Angelou ties the common imagery of “heartstrings” to the uniquely black horror of the “hanging noose.” This shift from a universal image to a very particular one conveys the specificity of Angelou’s claim: it is the southern black woman— and these are the three core aspects of Maya’s political reality— who feels this unique pain of knowing that her son, grandson, and nephew could be killed for just about any sort of infraction, legitimate or not, like Bailey’s failure to return home by sundown. Black men are in unique danger, which puts their family members in a unique state of fear. It is tragic then, in a way, to be a black woman— bound to fear most deeply for the ones she loves.

Chapter 19 Quotes

“It looks like Joe Louis is going down.” My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through the slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe Louis, one of the most famous and successful black boxers, seems likely to lose the heavyweight championship while everyone listens on the radio in Momma’s store. Angelou captures the tragedy of another loss for black society by putting Louis’ defeat in the same category as the terrible (and terribly violent) things black people had to live through in the segregated South. All sorts of racial violence, like the violence of Louis’ boxing defeat, are evoked here: lynching, ambush, rape, whipping, the chasing of slaves, the abuse of black servants. Louis’ loss is a huge disappointment for “my race,” Angelou tells us. It is another invalidation, another form of violence to the spirit.

It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis has proved that we were the strongest people in the world.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

When Joe Louis finally does win, it is a victory for the black community tainted by the fear that any form of celebration over Louis’ win could bring about retaliatory violence in the southern white community. Angelou elucidates some of the symbolism behind Louis’ victory, the reason it would have been so devastating— a groan for Angelou’s entire race— had Louis lost: his victory was to prove that black people were the strongest in the world. Louis, somehow able to bear the weight of this task, demonstrates at least in Maya’s eyes that blackness and success would have to be recognized as compatible by the white community. Admitting this would be scary for a society so bent on proving the inferiority of black people, hence the threat of violence against anyone celebrating Louis’ big win.

Chapter 23 Quotes

The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Edward Donleavy
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In another adeptly crafted and very funny passage turning cultural assumptions about blackness and womanhood on their heads, Angelou shows us how her racial shame could be triggered at any moment— even a celebratory one, like at her eighth-grade graduation. Mr. Donleavy, the white speaker from Arkansas, encourages the black boys at Maya’s school to take as their models Jesse Owens and Joe Louis (Owens was a four-time Olympic gold medalist runner, and Louis a world champion boxer).

Not only is it disappointing that Donleavy mentions nothing of the black girls, but as Maya notices these are not the same role models Donleavy would probably mention at a white graduation. In white culture, we’d expect to hear about great scientists like Galileo or Madame Curie, or great artists like the painter Gauguin, at most eighth-grade graduations. So Donleavy’s intrusion on black Alabama is further marked by his failure to encourage black boys to be anything besides good athletes (which implies his belief that black boys can’t hope to have good minds), and his failure to even acknowledge the future possibilities of black girls (implying his belief that black girls have nothing of importance to offer at all).

We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Henry Reed
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Having reacted bitterly to the irony of her classmate Henry’s “To Be or Not To Be,” Maya is— like the rest of the audience at her eighth-grade graduation— pleasantly surprised when Henry sings the Black National Anthem. The scene explodes with singing, like the black church Momma takes Maya to, and this vocalization of her community’s unity and solidarity quickly makes them forget Mr. Donleavy’s unfortunate speech.

By one-upping Donleavy with song, instead of trying to out-speak him, Henry accesses a plane of connection with his audience utterly inaccessible to the aloof white educator. Maya feels this direct connection strongly, and like her interactions with Mrs. Flowers it makes her proud again to be black. Surviving— getting through the “icy and dark” depths— is impressive, and the struggle of surviving leaves a “bright sun” speaking to their souls.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s”

Related Characters: Dr. Lincoln (speaker), Maya Angelou , Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

The strangeness for Maya of hearing anyone speak to Momma the way Dr. Lincoln does is marked first by the jarring “Annie” he calls her by. It is unfamiliar to Maya, and to the reader who has encountered mostly “Momma” for almost two hundred pages. The “Annie” captures how Dr. Lincoln sees Momma as inferior to him, as someone he has the right to call by her first name.

And then comes the brutal excuse, complete with racist epithet, that Dr. Lincoln offers for not treating Maya’s rotten teeth: he’d rather touch a dog’s mouth than a black person’s. Of course this is hurtful language, for Momma and especially for Maya, but the real tragedy is that this type of speech is culturally sanctioned; and so any white public figure, like a dentist, can openly abuse black people without any consequences, and can do so in “legal” language and refer to their own racism as a kind of “policy.” The black people being abused meanwhile, have to simply take the abuse or risk death for any sort of self-defense.

Chapter 25 Quotes

I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret world which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mrs. Bertha Flowers
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial passage, Maya registers one of the main reasons she loves books and feels grateful toward Mrs. Flowers for imparting her love of reading. Books, Maya, realizes, can be taken anywhere; they are not dependent on the physical or emotional closeness of anyone else, and offer an indirect but always accessible form of communication between reader and writer. The same is true, in a way, between the different readers of the same book. If Maya reads a book she learned about from Mrs. Flowers, she might feel again like she’s spending time with her black woman role model. It is no simple hobby Mrs. Flowers has shown Maya, but a “secret world which called forth a djinn”— in other words, Mrs. Flowers has given Maya not just a transient human connection, but a lifelong passion and a kind of magic that gives her a new way to sustain herself and engage with the world.

Chapter 27 Quotes

The Japanese were not whitefolks…since they didn’t have to be feared, neither did they have to be considered.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the few moments in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings when Angelou analyzes the status of a United States ethnic minority besides black people, we sense that the younger Maya isn’t quite sure how to process a group of people that is neither black nor white, neither us nor them. Her analysis is interesting because it is fear of other people, in her mind, that warrants consideration of them. One tragedy of Maya’s childhood is that she must always consider things in order to avoid violence, racial or otherwise; so it makes sense, in a way, that she’s not using much energy to consider people she needn’t fear.

Chapter 28 Quotes

Miss Kirwin never seemed to notice that I was Black and therefore different.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mrs. Kirwin
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Maya’s departure from Stamps and arrival in San Francisco mark one of the book’s biggest turning points, and for the reader closely following Maya through her childhood it’s hard not to wonder what her experience will be at her new school—especially given how much of a child’s life takes place at school during her student years. Strangely, in this alien world to the west, Maya’s teacher “never seemed to notice” her skin color, and treats Maya like all of her other students.

One of the unfortunate ironies of this passage is that, as Angelou seems to hint, all students probably should have gotten this sort of equal treatment in the first place. Thus Miss Kirwin’s treatment of Maya is both special and not at all; it is special to Maya, who has never met a teacher like Miss Kirwin, but really it is the bare minimum a teacher could do in an ideal (or even a relatively decent) society.

Chapter 29 Quotes

The Black man, the con man who could act the most stupid, won out every time against the powerful, arrogant white.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Daddy Clidell
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

As we’ve seen her do before in this book, Angelou turns assumptions about whiteness and blackness on their heads so that they become something of an advantage for black people (who otherwise suffer under these stereotypes). Whether or not Angelou thinks a con man’s success is a real victory, the point remains the same: if you’re going to label us with this set of identities, we’ll find a way to make them work better than yours.

This pertains also to the major victory of Joe Louis earlier in the book; Louis, carrying all the stereotypes of black male violence and bestiality, turns them into boxing glory. With that in mind, note that the black man described in this quotation is only acting stupid and that, when it comes to white people, power and arrogance are lined up next to each other as their defining traits. The black con man uses white power and arrogance to benefit himself.

Chapter 34 Quotes

The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste, and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

There’s a standard novel formation called the bildungsroman in which a young character (usually a white male) grows up and goes out into the world seeking to do or achieve something. In this passage, and really throughout the book, Angelou makes it clear that in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings she’s writing her own “American Negro female” sort of bildungsroman. Because the black woman’s development of a “formidable character” is far from the standard narrative promoted by Angelou’s society, it is shocking and even “distasteful” to people in more privileged positions.

Yet, as Angelou says, it is the standard narrative, the “inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors.” If you can make it through an “American Negro female” youth and early adulthood, Angelou suggests, you’re bound to end up formidable. The word “struggle”is one possible summary of what Angelou has written about to this point, but in a sense it is inadequate; so the whole book has, in a way, elucidated this struggle and prepared us for this big statement, one of Angelou’s more politically clear pronouncements throughout her book.

Chapter 36 Quotes

I patted my son’s body lightly and went back to sleep.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker)
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the very last line of the book. It is both a pleasant, life-affirming image to end on, and also something more than that. Maya’s soft pat of her son contrasts sharply with the many forms of violence inflicted on her body throughout the novel, from the way Momma beats her for minor infractions to the jarring acts of sexual abuse and rape committed by Mr. Freeman. It is a form of bodily contact that conveys not fear or pain but closeness, kindness, care, and love. It is also a comforting gesture toward her child, of the type we might have wished for Maya as we read our way through her own childhood.

Without being too heavy-handed or at all sentimental, Angelou’s last line suggests that Maya— her character and perhaps. at the same time, herself— is at least somewhat settled in her life. She has a son, seems good at taking care of him, and drifts off to sleep, offering a natural close to the novel that tracks her circadian rhythms and reminds us of the daily rhythms of her black community back in Stamps, showing up at Momma’s store before spending another day at work in the fields. That Maya is able to sleep, and tells us so, signals that she is relatively comfortable and at ease in this life she describes so vividly. Readers, like Maya herself, can breathe a bit easier for Maya after reliving her struggle with her, and look to the future with hope.